JARED FIELDS • PICAYUNE STAFF
COTTONWOOD SHORES — At least three Tuesdays a month, Cottonwood Shores Volunteer Fire Department first responders gather at the station for in-house training.
Usually, the training is medical- or equipment-related. The session Feb. 17 was both, you could say, as first responders learned how to establish a landing zone for the Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter.
Some of the volunteers had been through the training before, either in previous years or as part of another department. Despite the department’s volunteer status, many members have the training and certifications of a paid firefighter.
Travis Hockensmith, Cottonwood Shores VFD chief, said the department has 12 people classified as firefighters with five more in support status. When he first joined the department almost three years ago, Hockensmith said the department had six firefighters and 10 support members.
“I calculated our (Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service) TEEX-only training hours for the last 14 months, and it was 934 certified Texas A&M training hours,” Hockensmith said.
The department has clocked more than 1,300 hours of in-house training on top of that, he estimated.
The VFD had no records of training as recently as three years ago.
“Last year, we made leaps and bounds,” Hockensmith said. “I think in the last two years as an aggregate, we’ve done more than in the last 10 years, I would say.”
The VFD is the only one of its kind that covers a city in Burnet County without even the support of an Emergency Services District. Hockensmith took over as the department’s chief in October from former chief Heather Hyslop. Hyslop, who also is a Houston Fire Department firefighter, had been chief since January 2014. Under Hyslop and Hockensmith, the VFD became the county’s first volunteer department to earn First Responder Organization (FRO) status with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. The status is another certification that, in a way, legitimizes the quality of the department.
“It allows us to work closely with (Marble Falls EMS) as mutual aid,” Hockensmith said.
Training and equipment for any fire department requires not just personnel, but money. Lots of money. The Cottonwood Shores VFD receives about $24,000 from Burnet County and has a contract from the city for $33,000. Fundraisers and grants made up about $25,000 more of the department’s budget this year, Hockensmith said.
The department has sought more funding from the city of Cottonwood Shores in recent years. Negotiations in 2013 broke down and left the city without service for a few days. In 2014, the city had a vote of no-confidence in the department during the summer, and contract negotiations in September again turned tense.
The department asked for more money from the city each year: $39,500 in 2013 and $36,000 in 2014. The final contract was $34,000 in 2013 and $33,000 in 2014.
The city’s concerns mostly boiled down to communication and that the city wants input on how the department spends its money.
The city has been searching for an appointed liaison to work with the fire department and city but did not appoint one during its Feb. 19 regular meeting. Sheila Moore, city administrator/secretary, said the council will continue its search to find someone. The liaison will be expected to attend department meetings and trainings.
“I think the relationship is improving,” Moore said. “I’m hoping to continue working together. It’s been strained, but the relationship’s improving.”
Moore said the relationship seems to be improving with Hockensmith and the department’s new board president, former council member Judy Pace.
“We would like to see more members and increase membership. I know they’re really working hard on training the members they have,” Moore said. “We would like to see more fundraising activities and things like that.”
Hockensmith agreed that the road ahead for the two entities is better than any time since he’s been with the department.
“Some people on our board have different opinions than people in the city, it’s not disparaging at all,” he said. “That’s basically one of our obstacles of opinion: where the department is going. The city wants more of a say in how it’s run, and the board thinks they can run it.”
Hockensmith, who has served as a city council member, now has the advantage of seeing both sides of the issue.
“Sometimes, I have a different opinion than the board does because I understand some of the things the city would want, because it’s what I would want if I were on the council,” Hockensmith said.
Contract negotiations won’t begin for a few months. For more information, visit the Cottonwood Shores VFD’s website at www.cwsvfd.org.